Following a really successful launch in Japan, there was actually quite a bit of demand for Demon's Souls to be released in North America. Fortunately, Atlus USA decided to pick the game up and publish it, making it the first PlayStation 3 title that they've published. There are actually quite a lot of games that are never seen outside of Japan, so has Atlus USA made a good decision to bring this Action RPG to a Western audience?
As is often the case, the game's inhospitable world was created through noble intentions. King Allant XII attempted to bring peace and prosperity to his Kingdom by channelling the power of souls, but his lust for the ultimate power of peace power awakened the Old One from his slumber, and a blanket of fog edged around Boletaria cutting it off from the outside world. Those who entered the fog never returned, and with the fog came the arrival of soul-sucking demons. Those who lost their souls, also lost their minds, and as the demons ravaged the land Boletaria was thrown into chaos. Players take the role of an adventurer entering the fog for whatever personal goal they choose. Some knights, some thieves, others royalty, their goal remains the same - to kill every last demon walking the realm of Boletaria and send the Old One back to his eternal slumber.
Though each level in the game is given a brief history, players must work hard in order to dive into the current events of the demon-ravaged Boletaria. Friendly vendors, stranded knights and captured combatants encountered in the world will provide hints and assistance where they see fit and it is these lucky survivors that drive the story with their internal ambition and rivalries. Though it is entirely possible to avoid saving these men and women, the bonuses offered range from new items, unlocked paths, as well as gaining more insight as to Boletaria's condition. Discovering what exactly happened to those who have entered the fog before enables the player to learn from their mistakes, and it is this unique form of storytelling that allows players to pick and choose what aspects of the world they're immersed in. The groundwork is laid for an extremely complex world that is explored at the player's own pace and digression.
The gameplay follows a similar vein as the story, with many of the deeper elements of the game being easy to miss. Players are given the choice of ten classes to choose from, each offering a different set of starting stats, items, and spells. Controls are extremely intuitive, a simple weak attack and a strong attack for every weapon type are controlled by the right bumper and trigger. Separate individual button assignments exist for using items, casting spells, and evading attacks. The system itself is extremely easy to learn, the difficulty is in using it flawlessly.
Enemies in game always spawn in the same places and will never scale up in difficulty with your level, nor will they come at players in endless waves in an attempt to wear them down. Instead, Demon's Souls encourages memorizing where foes may lie in wait and responding to them quickly. Levels are littered with traps that are aimed to hinder the player, but can easily be turned against the enemy. Foes will charge wielding torches only to detonate an explosive barrel shrouded in the darkness just out of sight. On a second encounter however, the barrels can be exploded early by a magic or the fight can simply be taken away from explosives altogether. Learning how to turn each deadly environment into an advantage is part of the challenge of the game, though doing so often takes more then one death.As players kill monsters, beat bosses, and explore the dungeons they acquire souls - the games main form of currency. Souls can be spent to upgrade individual stats as well as boost weapons and upgrade armor. This makes souls a precious commodity, though collecting them is no easy matter and it can be exceedingly punishing. A single death will cause a complete loss of all souls that have been gathered and unspent, although the game does allow players to regain those souls upon reaching the spot where they last died. However, this rule only applies to the most recent death so dying on the way will cause them all to be lost. While most may see this as unnecessarily cruel, the idea isn't to grind the human spirit to nothing, but rather to reward players who learn from their mistakes.
This is not to say that the game is without its flaws. Targeting can at times be difficult for ranged classes, as at times it often requires players to get too close to some enemies that can close the distance quickly. Spell-casting has some major flaws as the dimensions of spells vary greatly, causing hit detection to often times be erratic. Firing a bow through gates and bars is possible but most spells will simply hit gates or walls that foes stand beside. Many enemies also seem unsure how to approach being dragged long distances through kiting (using hit and run ranged attacks) and there are several bosses that can be beaten by simply running away and waiting for them to glitch and begin to wander aimlessly. Aside from difficulties in the spell-casting department the game is well balanced, and players should find no problem at all discovering their unique way to play.
Graphically the game is stunning. No detail is lost between the enemies and the places they are fought in. Full cities are available to wander with minimal loading screens or lag. Some of the more intense sequences do cause frame-rate to drops; however, the experience is rarely made worse because of it. It's a very atmospheric game, and player will spend most of their adventures listening to the environment and the cries of opponents. It makes for a very haunting experience. One particular level features a jail where the cries of tortured victims are the only sounds heard up until the final boss, causing time spent exploring rather unnerving. Accompanying each boss is a memorable score that generally does a great job of unsettling the player. Ominous music is always the first hint of an impending boss encounter, and it really helps to influence the mood.
Though the game does boast plenty of replay value through its multiple classes and 'new game plus' modes, the real gem lies in its multiplayer. A primarily single player experience, Demon's Souls does offer the opportunity to play with other players that are within ten levels of their own. Up to three adventurers can work together to clear a dungeon, or to fight a boss together. For players who're feeling helpful, but are more interested in a solo experience, it's possible to leave notes on the ground that others can read. Being able to warn other players of a trap ahead or suggest a particular weakness on an enemy is extremely useful, though some find it funny to leave 'bad hints' to suggest certain areas are friendlier then they really are. For those not interested in working with others it's possible to invade another players' world as a Black Phantom with the goal of executing them before they leave. This obviously adds an entirely new edge to the gameplay, forcing players who've had their game invaded to keep an eye out not only on the deadly environment, but also for a bloodthirsty enemy that's not so predictable.
Overall Demon's Souls is an extremely satisfying game and it's a true breath of fresh air. Despite its challenging nature, it does attempt to reward death on some level and it ends up promoting satisfaction instead of frustration. It does have few technical flaws, but overall the experience is very rich and smooth. It's rare to find a game which gives players so much licence with regards to pacing and with no limits to how you enemies should be engaged, the game can be far more relaxing then stressful. Demon's Souls is definitely worth checking out.